Yugoslavia, Scotland and the end of nation

After the Scottish independence referendum, Britain should learn the lessons of Yugoslavia.

Tara McCormack

Topics Politics

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‘What did it matter, in practical terms, whether Yugoslavia was the internationally recognised state or Bosnia?’ (1)

So asked Mary Kaldor in her highly influential book New and Old Wars, which was first published in 1998. The aftermath of the Scottish referendum gives us a chance to look back at the break-up of Yugoslavia in perspective, and to also consider the similarities between that bitter separation and the current situation in Britain. Is this an outlandish comparison? Of course, it is highly unlikely that war will break out in Britain, but the unravelling of Yugoslavia and the independence referendum should be understood as part of the same political trend – the erosion of the central state and not, as some claim, a renewed belief in nationalism. Moreover, the current debate over Scottish independence shines a critical light on the flawed assumptions that have dominated Western policy since the end of the Cold War.

The demise of the Yugoslav state

There are two narratives that became influential during the break-up of Yugoslavia. The first narrative, which placed the blame for the conflict in Yugoslavia on the eruption of ancient ethnic hatreds that had been frozen by the Cold War, was shortlived. The second narrative, however, has become the orthodoxy of liberal academics, policy makers and journalists: that is, that the Serbs were conducting Nazi-style operations against non-Serbs in the former Yugoslavia. The notion that the Yugoslav break-up and wars were a rerun of the Nazi Holocaust became the global cause célèbre for Western liberals, intellectuals and states at the time. It was a point of moral clarity in a confusing post-Cold War world (2). Dissent was not allowed. The day that former UN secretary general Boutros Boutros-Ghali called the Bosnian war a ‘rich man’s war’, stating that that he could point to several conflicts that were far worse, was the day that he lost his job.

The civil wars, however, need to be understood in the context of the erosion of Yugoslavia itself, which took place after the death of long-term president, Marshal Tito. Yugoslavia had played a very particular and privileged role in the Cold War. Thrown out of the Cominform by Stalin in 1948, the West made a decision to keep Yugoslavia afloat and allocated it a key role in Western security. In the Sixties and Seventies, Yugoslavs seemed to have it all, the best of both blocs, a socialist economy at home and passports that were welcomed all over the world. While their Communist-bloc neighbours yearned for a sight of a plastic carrier bag, Yugoslavs would go on shopping trips to Trieste.

The good days were over by the Eighties. There were rising social, economic and political problems in Yugoslavia. The highly complicated federal system was becoming increasingly dysfunctional. The wealthy and more industrialised states of Croatia and Slovenia railed against federal financial transfers to poorer states like Bosnia and Macedonia. Serbia, whose two regions of Kosovo and Vojvodina had been granted near independence, felt politically incapacitated as growing numbers of Serbs left Kosovo. Accompanying these difficulties was a revival of a discussion concerning the country’s historical trauma: books and plays dramatising what had happened under Nazi occupation, which were taboo subjects under Tito, were again published. Compounding this was the end of the Cold War; almost overnight, Yugoslavia lost its privileged position in Western credit and security terms. Yugoslavia was unceremoniously demoted to just another small basket-case country in economic and political difficulties. It simply no longer mattered in the post-Cold War world. For Slovenia and Croatia, the way forward seemed to be in ditching the unwieldy dysfunctional Cold War dinosaur and joining the future in the shape of the European Community (3).

It is this steady erosion of the central state, alongside the final blow of the end of the Cold War, that is worth noting here in relation to Britain. The impetus behind the break-up was not virulent nationalism but the steady weakening of the role of the central state. While Yugoslavia was the focus of global attention as the bloody civil wars began, it was not the only European state that was undergoing an erosion of the central state. The end of the Cold War led to an unravelling of other European states as their national projects seemed increasingly incapable of maintaining the interest or loyalty of citizens, including states such as Italy, Spain and Belgium. As Zaki Laïdi perceptively points out, with the end of the Cold War and the end of the common enemy, the national project of many nations seemed to be exhausted. An existential blow was delivered to Western states that, without the strong external narrative of the Cold War, now had to justify themselves in their own terms.

It is this trend that is still working itself out today in Spain, Italy, Britain and other states. But try as Western politicians might to dress themselves up in exciting, new, forward-looking colours, these separatist movements represent the end, not the beginning, of something new. These movements represent nothing more than a retreat into parochial identities, the main goals of which will be to embolden folk dancers and domestic artistic production. It is the exhaustion of the national project and the inability of national elites to make a case for the idea of nation that allows for active nationalistic entrepreneurs to make their fantasy cases for independence. We saw this process playing out during the Scottish referendum, whereby the British establishment seemed completely unable to make any kind of case for Britain in the face of the Scottish National Party’s (SNP) fantasist campaign for independence.

Cosmopolitans versus nationalists after the Cold War

The truth of the Yugoslav conflict was much more mundane than the Nazi-esque narrative we have come to accept. In essence, it represented the fracturing of country, made up of individual battles concerning what land and citizens went where. The break-up of the established federal state was no easy matter. Yugoslavia had a complex system of overlapping political rights and citizenship – not to mention the intractable problem of the Yugoslav economy, which was riddled with debt. Moreover, there were minorities that, in the event of separation, wished to remain with the main state – Serbs in Croatia, and Serbs and Croats in Bosnia.

War was not inevitable, but what propelled the country towards conflict was external interference. The accepted narrative is that the international community did too little too late. In fact, the international community (the EC specifically) was a central player from the start. The international community simply refused to acknowledge that the break-up of an established federal state, along federal borders, could possibly entail any kind of real material or political problems and disagreements. All EC resolutions, policies and plans concerning Yugoslavia, from EC parliamentary resolutions in 1990 to the Badinter Commission, were premised on the simple assumption that the only thing at stake was the guarantee of minority and human rights. The quote from Kaldor sums up the cosmopolitan assumptions that were at the heart of international policies towards Yugoslavia. But this simply ignored the central problem. As Kiro Gligorov, the first president of an independent Macedonia, is reputed to have quipped: ‘Why should I be a minority in your country when you can be a minority in mine?’

The Serbs made the error of fundamentally misjudging the post-Cold War world. During the Cold War, fighting to preserve a state was not problematic. However, the erosion of the nation state discussed above can only be understood in the context of a broader elite retreat from the very idea of the state. After the Cold War it was argued in the UN Security Council and in the policy statements of major states that the bad old days of state sovereignty had passed. From the UN’s Agenda for Peace onwards, this was to be a new era in which what mattered was cosmopolitan rights for all. In this context, state sovereignty rapidly became a problem standing in the way of a brave new cosmopolitan world.

Perceived nationalism became the biggest secular sin. The Serbs, like the Israelis today, were felt to be atavistic hangovers from the bad old days. Of course, Slovene, Croat and Muslim political elites had a kind of national project, too, in that they imagined that the EC represented the best way forward for them. Bosnian Muslim political elites, in fact, had the strongest nationalist project of all, in that they sought to create an independent Bosnian state despite complete opposition from Bosnian Serbs and Croats. However, they framed their secessions in the language of human rights and multiculturalism. Ironically, Yugoslavia was the original multicultural state.

The recent referendum on Scottish independence, and the debates surrounding it, shows the essentially elitist and dishonest nature of post-Cold War cosmopolitan discourses. Why should either Scots or people in the rest of Britain care about the borders of their country? And yet, clearly, people do – and rightly so. Breaking up a country is not simply like moving house and getting a new postcode. The No campaign was criticised for relying on narrow economic arguments to make the case for the union, but even the narrow economic arguments (which, if anything, underrepresented the potential economic problems) show that the break-up of a country whose economic and political life is unified would have very serious consequences.

However, there is a significant difference between the current unravelling of European states we are seeing now, in comparison to the break-up of Yugoslavia. When it comes to discussing their own states today, Western political elites, such as those in the UK or Spain, would not dream of suggesting that the continuing existence of the state, as it is currently constituted, is irrelevant (whatever their real thoughts on the matter). Yet, when it comes to Yugoslavia, the argument remains that it couldn’t have mattered less.

Tara McCormack is a lecturer in international politics at the University of Leicester. She will be speaking at the debate Ukraine: Cold War rebooted? at the Battle of Ideas festival, held at the Barbican in London on 18-19 October. Get tickets here.

(1) New and Old Wars, by Mary Kaldor, Polity, 2001, p118

(2) Media, War and Postmodernity, by Philip Hammond, Routledge, 2007

(3) Two excellent books by Susan L Woodward offer the best introductions to Yugoslavia and the civil war: Socialist Unemployment, the Political Economy of Yugoslavia 1945-1995, 1995; and Balkan Tragedy, Chaos and Dissolution After the Cold War, 1995

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Topics Politics


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